Sunday, February 26, 2017

Detecting Fun: Shane Black Triumphs

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black

Reviewed: 26 February 2017

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I just think that Shane Black had so much fun writing and making this movie.  It really shows.  A 70's gumshoe mystery with a quirky chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys finds itself awash in disco hits, fantastic fashion, goofiness, and serious fun.  I loved its sense of humor, its quick wit, and its easy interplay between two very strong performances.

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a punchy unofficial private detective.  Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a more legitimate version of the same and a single dad who cannot smell.  They team up to find a missing girl who may be on the run from killers.  The plot connects to a dead woman found in a mysterious car crash (an audacious opening scene), some tough guys from Detroit, an extended sequence at a local pornographer's party pad, and a number of silly twists and turns along the way.

Gosling is an adept physical comedian, and his scene in the bathroom stall is one of the best of the year.  Crowe, older and bigger and a bit world-weary as his character keeps staving off attempts to give him drinks, has fun here as well, riffing a bit on his image and his past role in LA Confidential.  The supporting cast of Matt Bomer, Keith David, Kim Basinger, and the voice of Hamilton Burress.  I think with its winks to Raymond Chandler, its cleverly staged action pieces, its sharp dialogue, and its commitment to telling a genre story in an interesting way, it easily is one of the most underrated films of the year. 

Highway to Hell

Movie Review: Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

Reviewed: 26 February 2017

jamesintexas rating--****

A flat-out stark masterpiece.  I just cannot talk about how much I love this film.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers hell-bent on outfoxing the law and the bank that foreclosed on their dying mother's family farm. They craft an audacious plan to repay Texas Midland Bank with their own stolen money to get the family farm back, and the propulsion of the plot comes from the ticking clock of the payments due. Texas Ranger Marcus played by Jeff Bridges and his partner Alberto played Gil Birmingham are in pursuit. One brother is laconic and quiet; the other, a firecracker. As for the law, one man contemplates the end of his career and what it all meant; the other, the remainder of his time in this service. The collision is inevitable, but Mackenzie steers us towards all kinds of fun and suspense before reaching the point of impact.  A diner conversation with a waitress; a casino to launder large amounts of money; a surprising reversal with some Texans who witness a crime and decide to do something about it; a painful conversation between a father and a son, tinged with regret; a violent last stand. 

Mackenzie's confidence here extends into all aspects of the filmmaking: the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is pitch perfect; the achingly beautiful long shots of the Texas horizon; the robberies themselves with their energy and danger; the quiet, perfect ending to the film which suggests a conversation can sometimes be more powerful than a violent shoot-out.  Pine and Foster are fantastic in these roles, with Foster probably narrowly missing the Oscar nomination that went to Bridges.  Hell or High Water's economic and political undercurrents speak for our times as well; we root for these criminals in part because we believe the bankers and corporations to be the bigger criminals. And maybe the Texas Rangers see that as well and have to do their jobs just the same.  The abandoned storefronts and businesses that litter the landscape here provide their own counterpoint to this dark reclamation of the American Dream.  As the Coen Brothers in another West Texas masterpiece remind us, "There are no clean getaways," but the Howard Brothers decide it is worth risking it all to have a chance to end up on top. It will not be clean.

World of Stars and Beauty: Moonlight's Pull.

Movie Review: Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Reviewed: 19 February 2017

jamesintexas rating--****

Image result for images of moonlight film

I cannot shake Barry Jenkins's masterpiece Moonlight out of my head.  In its quiet, steady power, he unpacks identity in an unnerving way that evokes a line from William Faulkner's A Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead; It's not even past."  By using three different actors to portray the lead character at three different moments in his life, Jenkins forces the audience to search for the unity and the linkages in what makes us who we are.  An earring here.  A look there.  A choice of car.  A choice of music.  A decision made in haste.  One made over time.  One of regret.  One that lingers for many lost years.  I really do think that this film has a poetic, transformative, Malickian power and is undeniable in its artistry and boldness.  Jenkins contends that our past is not even past; we carry it with us and within us in the different people that we have been in our lives.

In Miami, Little (Alex R. Hibbert) flees his mother's addiction and some vicious bullying by wandering the neighborhood, breaking into abandoned buildings, and thus befriends a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). The friendship eschews easy description: it is not a clear mentorship, but Little craves someone to ask questions to, someone to be with, someone to bond with as he grows more distant from his addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).  Little wonders about his sexuality and place in the world.  Juan states, "At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you" to an impressionable young man at a pivotal moment.  A chance encounter between Juan and Paula forces a crisis of conscience for both, but there are no easy answers. 

Fast forward in time, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) moves through his high school alone and ostracized, brutalized by bullies.  In this chapter, a friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has the possibility to blossom into something more.  His mom and Teresa are constants in his life, offering different polarities of love and possibilities of life. Chiron makes a decision that echoes for the rest of his life in its power.

Fast forward even more in time, now going by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes), he moves through the world echoing some of the choices made by Juan and denying the feelings driven by Kevin.  Who he is seems shaped by the ghost of Juan.  A phone call from Kevin brings him back to Miami.  There is so much to think about in this quiet third act where a song on a jukebox has the power of an emotional grenade, and the decision to stay or go becomes elemental and consequential.  Black's negotiating of himself, his sexuality, his identity, and his future become the crux of the film's final moments. 

Jenkins frequently places his hand-held camera behind the character's head, so we do not see the actor's face as he traverses parking lots and overgrown fields.  The film's construction challenges us to link the chapters, to unify the person, to trace the construction of identity.  And there is Jenkins's most profound element: he forces us to consider how we become who we become.  The film feels linked to a place, this neighborhood in Miami and its beach.  The colors of the film are beautiful; the score, soaring.  I am just in awe of Jenkins's power as a storyteller, the craftsmanship of the performances.  It makes me think about the different versions of myself at different times and places: Elmhurst, Gambier, Houston, Philadelphia, Houston Part Deux. I see my son transform before my eyes, now a little boy.  I hold my fourteen month-old daughter who is starting to walk and make sounds into words, wondering what the world will be like for her and what she will be like for the world.  I think about how Juan comforts Little as he floats in the ocean for the first time: "Ok. Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won't let you go. Hey man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world." 

We are in the middle of the world with hands both seen and unseen holding us.  We are in the middle of the world with Moonlight, its beauty and its grace. I will never forget this film.

Image result for images of moonlight film